Dodge released its first Charger late in 1965 as a rival to Pontiac’s GTO. Barrels of development money could have been saved by just adapting an existing model – as practically the whole US motor industry would have done – but the first Charger came with a unique fastback shape, special interior including a folding rear seat and concealed headlights.
At a time when most large US cars retained a separate body and chassis, the Charger used unitary construction and was 100kg lighter. With the 6.9-litre ‘Street Hemi’ V8 an option, it delivered more performance than any other full-sized US 1966 model.
Despite or perhaps because of the Charger’s spectacular shape, sales during its first two production years were disappointing and it took a complete makeover to unleash the model’s full potential.
The ‘cigar shape’ 1968 car maintained a fastback profile but with an inset rear window for improved rear vision. This change unwittingly created greater drag and problems for those who had been enjoying spectacular Nascar success with the previous model.
Although early cars could be found with a 3.7-litre six-cylinder engine, virtually every Charger to come to Australia would be V8-powered. Most popular was the 6.3-litre, 383 cubic inch version coupled to three-speed automatic transmission. Despite their weight and ever-improving performance, US cars were still hampered by a manufacturer belief that all-drum brakes were still perfectly adequate.
Front disc brakes were optional on basic cars and from 1968 became standard on the big-engined R/T. It came standard with a 280kW ‘Magnum 440’engine and three-speed automatic transmission with four-speed manual adding $188.
Critics liked the Charger’s performance and price but complained about the basic levels of trim. To shut them up, Dodge introduced an SE (Special Edition) pack which covered the seats in leather, put fake timber on the dash, added extra interior lights, map pockets and new hubcaps.
Available from 1970, the triple-carburettor ‘440-6 Pack’ engine cost just $119 more than a basic 440, yet just 684 of these ultimate, non-Hemi Chargers were sold during their introductory year. Insurance was the main issue and eventually a factor in the total demise of the most confronting of muscle machinery.
A restyle introduced for 1971 diminished the Charger’s visual impact but did minimal damage to sales. By 1974 though, sales were down to around 30,000 units of the SE V8 and the Golden Years were past.
More than half a million Chargers were built in the space of eight years and only a few versions are rare or revered enough to be collectible. That hasn’t stopped owners of quite ordinary versions looking at the money being generated by R/Ts and boosting asking prices for their base models towards $80,000.
The 1966-67 cars haven’t ever attracted the same buyer interest as later models. Unless fitted from new with a 426 cubic inch Hemi engine, the earliest Chargers on their home market generally sell for less than US$30,000.
Genuine 1968-70 R/T cars are rare in Australia and usually make more than $100,000. Finding a genuine V Code 440 6-Pack will be more difficult and expensive, with high-quality cars on offer in the USA at $110,000-140,000. 1971-73 versions are 30 per cent cheaper than earlier cars with the same mechanicals.
Sweeping sheets of steel and minimal rust-proofing make the Charger a haven for rust and time-consuming to repair. Look at sills, wheel-arches, floors (especially the boot), sub-frame and rear spring attachment points. Good news that sets of reproduction panels including front mudguards, rear quarter panels, full floors and sills cost around $10,000 including duty, GST and freight. Make certain that the headlamp doors move quickly and easily as remanufactured actuators cost US$1000 per pair. Replacing damaged glass can be a problem too as not much is stocked here. Forty year-old vinyl tops may have faded or split but replacement material is available from US suppliers.
Most common engines available here are 383 and 440 cubic inch ‘big block’ V8s and cheaper Chargers use the same 5.2-litre ‘Fireball’ as local Valiants. Cooling system neglect can lead to overheating but aluminium radiators and larger capacity water pumps are available locally. Misfiring and backfiring can be a warning of camshaft wear, or at least faulty ignition timing. Parts are easily found; new timing chains under $100 and used, big-block engines in good condition at $3500-5000. High value cars need to be running their original engine block, so check the numbers match against one of the many on-line sources of verification. Torqueflite transmissions used in Chargers are incredibly durable and not difficult or costly to recondition.
NUMBER BUILT: 52,778 (1966-67) 235,068 (1968-70) 241,095 (1971-73)
BODY: all-steel, unitary construction two-door hardtop
ENGINE: 3687cc in-line six-cylinder, 5211cc, 6276cc, 7210cc V8 with overhead valves and single downdraft carburettor (triple downdraft on 440-6 Pack)
POWER & TORQUE: 279kW @ 4600rpm, 648Nm @ 3200rpm (440 single carb)
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h – 6.1 seconds, 0-400 metres 13.9 seconds (440 auto)
TRANSMISSION: three or four-speed manual, three-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: independent with upper and lower control arms, torsion bars and telescopic shock absorbers (f), live axle with semi-elliptic springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: drum or disc front, drum rear power assisted
TYRES: FR70 or GR78-14 bias ply
The big Dodge uses a suspension design and components not far removed from the items found in local Chrysler Valiants. Problems encountered are the same too with tired torsion bars and bushings combining with worn steering to make the car wander alarmingly when the road surface changes or braking. Parts are available and at reasonable prices; new torsion bars and adjusters A$1000 per pair and ball joints US$45-60 each plus a bit for freight. Older RHD conversions need to be professionally inspected to ensure on-going safety. Big 200km/h Dodges need something better than four drum brakes to stop them and while disc brake conversions can absorb anywhere from $2500-5000 they are worth considering.
Long-term durability wasn’t a big issue when these cars were designed, so it’s common to find Chargers that haven’t been restored in a while (or ever) with split seat vinyl, worn carpets and distressed headlining. Virtually everything needed to refurbish a basic Charger interior is available, with kits of replacement seat vinyl in original patterns costing less than $2000. Replacement centre consoles are available in the USA for under US$500. Check that doors close without having to be lifted and the windows – especially if they are electric – move quietly and easily.
DODGE CHARGER (1968-70 R/T)
(Note: concours cars will demand more)